Saturday, February 7, 2009

New Beginnings

Alas, I've gotten terribly behind on posting updates of my fabulous journey. So now, without further ado, I shall dramatically launch myself back into the present with my more current online outlet:

Mostly about local issues but occasionally jumping up to national-level issues too. Enjoy!

Monday, February 2, 2009

Boston T Party

On Saturday, we happily left the backwards back woods of rural Mass, heading for another set of relatives we had closer to Boston. We headed east on route 2, an unusual highway with exceptional glare. So much glare that there are road signs warning you of it, as if you would need a warning sign about glare, or even be able to see the signs if there was any.

We spent the morning catching up with our family. Unlike their rural counterparts, they were enthusiastic about our trip to the inauguration and reveled in hearing our story. We ate lunch at their house, and then left for Boston.

Our relative, a civil engineer, delighted in telling us the history of each bridge we crossed. Most of the bridges were relatively modern, but some were replacements of bridges from the 1800s, or even 1700s. We eventually merged onto the Mass Pike, and as we got closer to Boston he pointed out a giant billboard calling for greater regulation at gun shows; apparently, this was a contested issue in Massachusetts.

We needed gas, and somehow we ended up refueling in South Boston. Our relative affectionately referred to the area as "Southie", and the Victorian houses and nearby bridges and bays reminded me of San Francisco. He told us about the troubled history of the area. "Lots of Irish people live here", he told us, "but they were racist and fought against integration in the 70s". I was reminded of a photograph I had seen in an American history class, of a white Bostonian trying to stab a black man with an American flag.

However, it seems Boston may have emerged from that darker period of its history. By all accounts, Bostonians were as happy as anyone after Obama's inauguration. We stopped for coffee at a starbucks closer to Downtown Boston, and a mixed-race crowd contentedly sipped their coffees without stabbing each other with flags.

We parked near our relative's office, and waited to catch the "Silver Line" - a bus that ran on its own underground road - into the center of town. Boston is home to the famous "Big Dig", which moved miles of urban interstate below ground and as a consequence required a number of ventilation towers throughout the city. The towers are a bit annoying, but not nearly as annoying as an eight-lane highway running through the center of town.

Eventually the bus arrived, and we rode it to the Red Line subway. Boston's subway is referred to as the "T", and is the oldest subway in the US. As a result, some of the stations are kind of funky. We got off near the Boston Common (basically a big park) and walked west to Back Bay, a classy neighborhood. We passed by the Hancock Center, Boston's Main Library, and eventually ended up at the world Christian Science Center. It was a nice walk, but unfortunately we had to turn around since my associate's flight was leaving in a couple of hours.

We headed back to the car. Fortunately, Boston's Logan Airport is relatively close to the center of town and we were there in 15 minutes. My associate checked in without difficulty and found time to scarf a burrito before heading to the gate. Before he headed out, we took time to marvel at the large number of propeller planes at Logan, ready to shuttle affluent Bostonians to Martha's Vineyard or other luxurious island retreats nearby.

So my associate left, leaving me without anyone to associate with. We had some fun, made history, and got in a few arguments too. But I was happy to have him around, and I wished him a safe flight. The sun was setting as my relative and I drove back to his house, and the skyline of Boston was silhouetted against the orange sky. I thought back to our first day on the road, all those months ago. It was the end of a great excursion.


Massachusetts is generally viewed as a blue state among blue states. Taxes are high, gay marriage is legal, and wool-knit sweaters abound. However, my associate and I were in for an odd juxtaposition as we drove up to our relatives' house in rural Massachusetts. There were still wool-knit sweaters - alpaca wool, as the colder climate provided them the ideal setting to start an alpaca farm. But as we quickly found out, locals here despised taxes, secular values, and "big government". As we awoke Friday morning, a group of locals had assembled to haul alpaca-related materials to a nearby farm. My relative gleefully pointed out that I had just seen the inauguration, initiating a round of mockery at my expense. "How was the messiah?" I didn't dignify their pseudo-clever remarks with an answer.

My associate and I went into town mid-day for food. The town was quaint and brimming with new england charm, and there was a Quizno's right on the town square. We went in, and it turned out the store was linked to an all-purpose video rental/pharmacy/sports supply store. The staff was friendly, and they were nice enough not to ask us about our political views.

We spent the afternoon reading and catching up with our family, then in the evening we drove to a slightly larger town and ate at a nice restaurant. It was a pleasant meal, although it was a bit bittersweet since it would be the last dinner my associate would have before leaving for home. I was to stay for a few more days on the east coast visiting friends and relatives.

In rural Massachusetts, an area perhaps as conservative as the Southern towns we visited earlier, I recognized the same mood as I had in liberal California four years earlier: conspicuous indifference. Two years ago, these people were dismayed by the political ascendancy of their antithesis: a black man, a practitioner of big city politics, a socialist who pals around with terrorists. They had spent the previous year cultivating their hatred of this man, and now he's their president. Democracy can be difficult. On the days following the inauguration, after two months getting used to the idea of Obama as president, many had discovered the best coping mechanism was absorption in their daily routine. In the bluer parts of the country, we learned that lesson on January 20, 2005.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

The Road From Change - Jan. 22

We left Philadelphia - or "Phila" as the road signs refer to it - around 1 PM, and headed for New Jersey. Stopping for gas just north of Trenton, we were hoping to hear some good Sopranos-style Joyzee accents, but to no avail. We continued north on the fabled New Jersey Turnpike. It was my first time driving the length of the Garden State and I had high hopes for such a place that brilliant thinkers like Bruce Springsteen and Kevin Smith couldn't shut up about.

New Jersey proved to be uninspiring, it was like Orange County at thirty degrees. But given that we were expecting that, it didn't work out so bad. We decided to stop in Newark and ride the PATH to New York for a brief walk, seeing as we rarely ever get to visit the East Coast. Newark is remarkably similar to Oakland; it's old and run-down, it has a sports stadium, and it's built on a swamp. However, the most striking similarity between the two is that they are clearly set apart from the "desirable" city centers of Manhattan and San Francisco. I find it remarkable how how much both cities benefit from waterways; they allow the tourists and businesspeople to confine themselves to stunning civic cores while the nasty urban realities of Newark or Oakland are kept thoroughly out of sight, out of mind. Call it the theory of urban moats.

We boarded the PATH at Newark Penn Station - apparently all train stations in the Tri-State area have "Penn" in their names. The train rumbled past downtrodden railyards and forlorn ports before turning underground. Eventually we emerged at the former WTC site. I stopped to take a picture and was promptly repremanded by the New York cops. Apparently taking pictures in PATH stations is bad. But to be barked at in that inimitable East Coast style was actually an "authentic" experience - awesome!

Our walk around Lower Manhattan was short but sweet. There was of course the requisite gaggle of skyscrapers, the Duane Reade drug stores, the lack of public restrooms. We walked by Trinity Church and the entry to the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel. We ended our walk at Battery Park City, which is more park than city. The sun was setting over the statue of Liberty, but all I could think about was how cold the Hudson must be right now.

With the sun down, we turned back toward the PATH station. The ride back to Newark was smooth, and thankfully there was no traffic on the way out of town. We headed north to Massachusetts, crossing the Tappan Zee Bridge and the diminutive state of Connecticut. By the time we got to our family's home in rural Massachusetts, our relatives had already gone to sleep. But that was just as well, we were tired and didn't particularly feel like talking.

Brotherly Love for Obama

We began our day in Philadelphia at an authentic diner; it was probably the best food I've eaten near an airport. Unfortunately it was breakfast time so we couldn't order Philly Cheesesteak sandwiches, but the food was still tasty. The diner was filled with Philly memorabilia: shots of the skyline, the Liberty Bell, and the stadium where the Phillies play - next year, they won't be so lucky.

We drove into town and parked in a giant-ass vertical parking lot. Conveniently enough, we were right next to the famous "Love" statue. We decided to ride the SEPTA subway east to Independence Hall. The city is littered with references to historical figures: Ben Franklin, Betsy Ross.

Independence hall is situated next to a large grassy field. Inside were numerous convention halls and a gift shop, whose employees were just beginning to remove all the Obama merchandise, which was fine by me; I'd rather see their shelves devoted to cheesy Franklin stove replicas and copies of the Constitution.

I had a quick chat with one of the store clerks, who began by complaining about the excess of people traveling through who had seen the inauguration - the DC-Boston corridor was certainly the most heavily traveled by inaugural attendees. He also was quick to brag about all the appearances Obama made in Philadelphia during his campaign. Obama appeared numerous times at Independence hall, at one point giving a speech in the room directly above this very gift shop. He said that Obama's train trip was apparently a really big deal in town, with people waiting for hours outside the station. He was quick to put in a good word for his fellow Philadelphians as well, they were all good Obama supporters. Fortunately, in this election cycle the Philadelphia side of Pennsylvania seems to have won out over the redneck side, the side that the people we stayed with have to put up with and that James Carville described as "Alabama".

We left and walked up Market street back toward the Love sign. On the way, we stopped at City Hall, which was closed due to a film shoot. Eventually, we made it back to the car without accumulating too big a parking fee. We would have liked to stay longer in Philadelphia, but we needed to leave since we had to be in New England that evening.

The Road From Change - Jan. 21

Our drive was largely uneventful after we left Washington on Wednesday evening. The Beltway was clogged, so we took a shortcut which ended up being a detour. Roadside signage warned us of severe traffic through downtown Baltimore, so we skirted the city via highway 695. We got off on the northwest side of town and had pizza at an Egyptian restaurant (go figure). Upset that the restaurant didn't carry soda, my associate asked that we have some form of beverage afterward, so we went to a nearby trader joes and had a free sample of coffee. Problem solved!

We hit the road again, reluctantly paying a toll to drive on I-95 through Maryland, and again through Delaware. For those of you with plans to drive through Delaware, I suggest you find some other way to go than 95; it costs 5 friggin dollars to drive on that road through our nation's first and lamest state. Maybe that's why Biden always rides the Amtrak.

So we drove on through the night. We crossed into Pennsylvania and realized we were pretty tired, so we checked in to a hotel just outside Philadelphia and called it a night.

Embracing What is Right?

The Rev. Joseph Lowery gave his benediction, and afterward, much was made over one particular line he dropped:

"Lord... help us work for that day when black will not be asked to get in back, when brown can stick around ... when yellow will be mellow ... when the red man can get ahead, man; and when white will embrace what is right."

This has generated a lot of controversy, little of it deserved. If you want to see a bit of the controversy for yourself, check out the thousands of comments on the benediction's Youtube video. Some white people have gone on the offensive, smearing Lowery's comments as racist; I wouldn't go that far, but I still was a bit disappointed to hear them. On January 20th, we inaugurated a black man as president, a man who reminded us of how his father would not have been served in DC restaurants 60 years ago. And white people certainly helped, voting for Obama more than any other democratic candidate since Carter. Can't we acknowledge that, at least some of the time, white has already embraced what is right?

Of course, some whites continue not to embrace what is right. And I think that the accusation that Lowery was wrong because he "played the race card" rings hollow. These "race card" accusations are a mistake because they stifle necessary dialogue. But generalizing whites as monochromatic oppressors is not the way forward. How about we recognize that white can be all right?

Tough Love, Tough Not To Love

The initial reaction to Obama's speech was that it was exceptionally tough. Gone was the "soaring" rhetoric, the "Yes We Cans" of Nov. 4, reporters lamented. Obama's opening line was, "I stand here today, humbled by the task before us". In other words, no more Mr. Nice Guy. Or so it was reported.

But what the reporters seemed to miss, and what was clear to me standing on the mall, was how brilliantly Obama's speech diverted the sheer energy of the inaugural crowd and worldwide audience into forward motion.

Barack Obama is a Democrat and an expected practitioner of the center-left politics of his party. But his speech also brought to light ideas that had yet to be given voice in the political arena. When Obama said, "The success of our economy has always depended not just on the size of our gross domestic product, but on the reach of our prosperity; on our ability to extend opportunity to every willing heart — not out of charity, but because it is the surest route to our common good", he indicated what could be a paradigmatic shift in social thinking. He follows with this brilliant line of thought "To the people of poor nations, we pledge to work alongside you to make your farms flourish and let clean waters flow; to nourish starved bodies and feed hungry minds. And to those nations like ours that enjoy relative plenty, we say we can no longer afford indifference to suffering outside our borders; nor can we consume the world's resources without regard to effect." It is my sincere hope that someday we will look back to this speech and recognize it as the beginning of an era in which humans abandoned mindless consumption and structured their society around something more meaningful. And I was touched that Obama would include "nonbelievers" in his speech - it was a much needed acknowledgment that one of America's most maligned groups are actually caring individuals and an integral part of our society.

However, as brilliant as the explicit message of Obama's speech was, the implied message was more pointed: there is work to be done, and that includes you. American government used to be above and unaccountable to the people, now it is again by and for the people. If the American people have gained power through the election of a worthy executive, that power is bound to the Spiderman axiom that "with great power comes great responsibility". But this is not a bad thing, it deserves to be celebrated along side everything at the inauguration. We will become a better nation, but only we all work together to make it happen.